Monday, June 25, 2018

All the King's Men

All the King's Men; drama, USA, 1949; D: Robert Rossen, S: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, Joanne Dru, John Derek

Jack, a reporter, is sent by his editor to the Kanoma city to cover a hot new treasury candidate, an ordinary farmer, Willie Stark, who is facing enormous opposition by the oppressive local government. Jack is so fascinated by Stark's idealism and speeches about justice for the poor people, that he joins his cause as his PR man. When he runs for a second time, Stark loses again to the mainstream candidate, but doesn't give up. Years later, Stark runs again and finally gets elected as the Governor, hiring Jack and Sadie as his associates. However, once in power, Stark adopts oppressive tactics, as well: he bribes, blackmails, has an affair with Anne Stanton, Jack's girlfriend, whereas his adoptive son, Tom, has a car crash that kills a girl, and her father is later found dead before he can press any charges. When judge Stanton, Anne's uncle, starts an impeachment against Stark, the politician blackmails him with evidence of how the judge got his first job. In shame, the judge then commits suicide. Anne's brother, Adam, then shoots Stark.

This quality and ambitious political drama explores the theme of the often used proverbial saying "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" through the fictional story of politician Willie Stark (excellent Broderick Crawford) who undergoes a transformation from a humble, honest, philanthropic candidate to a greedy, dishonest, megalomaniac and oppressive Governor, symbolizing the tale of small people who fight against the upper class only to in the end become the new upper class themselves, and this was done in a rather clever way, though the critics still concluded that the movie lost some of the layers and richness of the original novel, "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren. The director Robert Rossen uses a few great shot compositions with depth of field to make the ordinary scenes stand out, whereas he knows how to deliver an "actor's film". The story is subversive in exploring the notion of "right is might" through several scenes: in one of them, Jack is surprised that his editor is cancelling his articles about Stark in the newspaper since the latter is endangering the establishment ("We are now supporting Harrison!") whereas in the next chapter, it is revealed how Stark, now Governor, took one of the first steps in buying off newspapers and radio stations to secure his position. However, the film lacks highlights. It has one great moment—after he lost the election, Stark goes to a bar and takes a drink with a mysterious smile, surprising his associates with these words: "I learned something. How to win."—yet "All the King's Men" needed more of such scenes since it ended up too didactic, schematic and grey in the second half, struggling to find true inspiration instead of just queuing dry symbolism again and again, which makes it not that fresh anymore, in spite its other virtues.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dater's Handbook

Dater's Handbook; romantic comedy, Canada, 2016; D: James Head, S: Meghan Markle, Kristoffer Polaha, Jonathan Scarfe, Christine Chatelain

Vancouver. Cass is a sucessful business woman, but is a failure when it comes to finding the right man who wants to marry her. Upon the insisting of her sister, Cass starts to read the self-help book "Dater's Handbook" which suggest she is constantly picking wrong, iresponsible men who don't want to commit. She thus breaks up with her boyfriend, Peter, and decides to go on a date with the relaxed and casual Robert. However, when a manager, George, invites her to diner, she decides to date him simultaneously, as well, in order to see which of the two men will turn out to be the "right one". She drops Robert and chooses George, since he is the opposite of a man she always picked: reliable, conservative, safe, boring. Too boring, however, and thus, in the end, Cass still decides to make up with Robert.

"Dater's Handbook" is remembered for being the last film featuring Meghan Markle, before her retirement from acting as she got married to Prince Harry two years later. It is a rather standard romantic comedy flick, yet it gains 90% of its charm thanks to Markle's sweet, lovable and funny performance, who here probably wanted to display all she got before calling it quits in the movie world, and this works to some extent, since she manages to lift up the level of the rather routine and light storyline by a notch. The story focuses on the theme of trying to rationalize love in the heroine Cass who is attracted to the "wild" and unpredictable Robert, but decides to pick the opposite spectrum and go for the boring and predictable, stable George, hoping she will finally find the opposite man who will commit, and this uncertainty gives the movie some sparks. One of the best jokes arrives in the office, when Cass informs an employee that he goofed when he made a thousand cylindrical football ball snuggies featuring the word "Tornadoes" because he thought it meant American football, when it fact it meant the South American association football, which has a round ball. How does she solve this? She simply tells him to call a high school in Wichita which has a "Tornadoes" team and ask if they need plush toy football balls, in order to sell them the unnecessary stuff. Another good scene is the "stolen moment" of Cass observing her and Robert's dog bringing back a freesbee together, holding it in both of their jaws, which is a nice foreshadowing, as well as the comical moment of Robert trying to play football in order to block Cass from bowling. While the ending is somewhat too neat and the story plays it too safe, "Dater's Handbook" is a cute and amiable little film that has its moments.

Grade:++

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Summer Rental

Summer Rental; comedy, USA, 1985; D: Carl Reiner, S: John Candy, Karen Austin, Kerri Green, Joey Lawrence, Richard Crenna, Rip Torn

Jack is an air traffic controller. After he temporarily loses one plane on the radar because it was covered by a fly on his monitor, he gets four weeks off and decides to spend his summer vacation in a small town in Florida, together with his wife Sandy and their three kids. However, Jack encounters even more stress there: he gets a sunburn; he realizes his family settled in a rented house on the wrong address; he worries his teenage daughter might date a suspicious lifeguard... After he accidentally rubbed a local tycoon, Al, the wrong way, Al becomes the new landlord and orders Jack's family to leave the apartment. However, thanks to a local, Scully, Jack wins against Al in a bet when he wins in a sailing competition, and thus gets an extension to stay.

Movies about summer vacation or camping turned out uninspired and arbitrary more often than not, and this film by Carl Reiner is not an exception, either. It is assembled in an episodic fashion, with light vignettes about the ironic misadventures revolving around the hero who takes a vacation, but rarely any one of them is funny or memorable. In fact, it seems they were making all these scenes on the spot, as they went along, which makes them feel as if anybody could have come up with them, and not a true master of comedy who took some effort to craft a good storyline beforehand. While it is ironic that the protagonist takes a vacation to escape from stress, only to find out his vacation just offers even more stress, John Candy (in only his 2nd leading role on film) cannot save this thin film by himself, despite his comic talent. One of the rare examples of some true humor is only found sparsely, such as the moment where Jack asks a whole line of people why they are all passing through the yard of his rented house, only for one man to open his mouth only to burp and point at the sign that says "Beach access route" or when Jack is reluctant to wear any bathing suit because he is embarrassed to show his weight in front of all the people in the open. Unfortunately, "Summer Rental" simply lacks highlights or reasons to watch it, and thus it is indeed much more fun to go on a vacation yourself than to try to search for funny moments in this storyline.

Grade:+

Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2018; D: Brad Bird, S: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini

The Parr family–Bob, Helen, Dash, Violet and Jack-Jack–are forced back to being a "normal" family after the superheroes are outlawed by the government due to too much collateral damage caused while catching criminals, and thus the Incredibles become a thing of the past. However, Helen accepts the advice of millionaire Winston and secretly returns as Elastigirl, fighting crime in the city. Thus, Bob stays at home and has to take care of the kids all alone, despite huge problems: Violet is angry that the agents erased the memory of her crush, Tony, while baby Jack-Jack has uncontrolled outbursts of superpowers. It turns out that Winston's sister, Evelyn, wants to sidetrack the agreement for rehabilitation of superheroes, in order to make them illegal permanently. Thanks to all the family, Evelyn is stopped and the agreement is signed.

Full 14 years have passed since the original "Incredibles" was released, and this long hesitation took its toll in this somewhat weaker assembled sequel, but a one that still offers enough humor, wit and creative action sequences to "float above" the average empty big budget spectacles, while also adapting feminist undertones: here, Helen / Elastigirl has been promoted to the main character while her husband, Bob, now unemployed, has to stay at home and take care of their kids while she is at work, whereas even the plot twist involving a villain stays true to this gender equality notion. "Incredibles 2" suffer the most from two things: Violet was an excellent character in the 1st film, since her teenage problems were easily identifiable, yet was sadly pushed to the background in this story, whereas the subplot involving the baby having sudden outbursts of uncontrolled superpowers (turning into a red devil while angry; teleporting himself...) was ill-conceived and misguided, a cheap attempt at jokes that clash badly with some more sophisticated moments in the film. Some of the finest moments arrive precisely from quiet comedy bits, mostly from Bob trying to take care of the kids at home: in one of them, after the baby has escaped several times from the cot at night, a tired Bob puts a table on top of the bed, so that the baby will not escape from it again. In another, while Helen calls over the phone and asks if Dash has done his homework, the camera pans at Dash sleeping on the table, while Bob says: "He's done!" More of such clever jokes would have been welcomed, since there are a few moment of "empty walk" here and there, whereas the three sequences of the villain's hypno-rays are a "flashlight overkill", yet Bird once again demonstrates that he still has enough freshness and ideas to deliver fun movies, which compensates for several omissions.

Grade:++

Friday, June 22, 2018

Superman: The Mad Scientist; The Mechanical Monsters; The Arctic Giant

Superman: The Mad Scientist; The Mechanical Monsters; The Arctic Giant; animated fantasy shorts, USA, 1941, 1942; D: Dave Fleischer, S: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander, Jack Mercer

Clark Kent is a seemingly ordinary reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, but in reality he can change into Superman and use his superpowers to stop crime and save people, mostly his colleague, Lois Lane. 1st story: a mad scientist wants to use a laser gun from his laboratory on a hill to destroy the city, but Superman stops him. 2nd story: another scientist uses his inventions, a dozen 10ft tall robots, to rob banks and jewels. 3rd story: a giant, frozen Dinosaur is found in Siberia and brought to Metropolis. However, the machine keeping it frozen malfunctions, the ice melts and the unleashed Dinosaur starts wrecking havoc in the city, until Superman stops him and brings him to a Zoo.

Not even three years after its debut in DC Comics, Superman already enjoyed its first media adaptation in Dave and Max Fleischer's eponymous animated series in 1941, which paved the way for numerous superhero films, while also establishing some of Superman's trademarks, including his flying abilities. The three short animated films, each with around a 10 minute of running time, are an interesting example of Fleischers' skills, though with a restrained imagination, since they seem to have a rather too simplistic, too schematic storyline: a villain shows up; Lois Lane is in trouble; Superman saves the day, the end. It thus leaves only 2-3 lines for each of the characters, which feels like a 'rump' edition of their characters. The traces of rotoscopic animation have their charms, yet not all scenes are equally as fluid: for instance, the green Tyrannosaurus in "The Arctic Giant" is as goofy looking as a Donald Duck cartoon, especially in its "rubbery" interaction with a bridge or a dam. The Fleischers' do not reach their high levels from "Popeye Meets Ali Baba's 40 Thieves" or "Gulliver's Travels", yet some moments here display their "director's instinct": for instance, "The Mechanical Monsters" starts off in medias res, showing a broken window of a bank and the shadow of the perpetrator, a plane-robot, flying over the city until the door opens to invite him into the castle of the bad guy. The 1st film, "The Mad Scientist", is done with the most care, carefully establishing the set-up, while also featuring at least one memorable image (the laser ray, fired from a laboratory on a hill at night, chops away the bottom of the building, but Superman prevents its fall), yet all these adventures lack humor, wit and energy to truly come to full expression, in the full sense of the word.

Grade:++

What's Opera, Doc?

What's Opera, Doc?; animated short, USA, 1957; D: Chuck Jones, S: Mel Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan

Elmer Fud, wearing a Viking helmet and armor, sings how he is going to kill the rabbit thanks to his powers that allow him to conjure up thunder and storms. Bugs Bunny shows up and runs away, only to disguise himself as a woman riding a giant, fat white horse. Seeing he was deceived, Elmer summons thunder to strike Bugs. However, after he sees Bugs is dead, Elmer feels remorse and picks up the rabbits' body.

In the book "The 50 Greatest Cartoons" by Jerry Beck, "What's Opera, Doc?" took the top spot as the best American short cartoon of the 20th century, yet such a high reputation is surprising when, in reality, the movie is barely more than a few chuckles—a good little film, but not a great one. It gains some plus points by leaning on Richard Wagner's classic operas and the unusually expressionistic background animation, yet they can only go so far: "What's Opera, Doc?" consists just out of Elmer Fud chasing Bugs Bunny; Bugs disguising himself as a woman; Elmer hitting him with lightning, the end. While the director Chuck Jones shows competence, he lacks true inspiration, surprises or ingenuity in this rather simplistic-schematic presentation. One of the best sequences is the finale, displaying unusual shot compositions that play with shadows and light as Elmer descends from the castle to spot a beam of light illuminating the (seemingly) dead body of Bugs Bunny lying on a rock, while drops of water are falling from a flower, almost as if the flower is crying, in a highly poetic and expressionistic set of images. Unfortunately, nothing else in the film comes close to that high level in that sequence. A good film, yet it is easily surpassed by Avery's very similar syncretism of opera and comedy, "Magical Maestro", which seems much fresher and creative today.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Novy Aldy - A Past That Cannot Be Forgotten

Novy Aldy - A Past That Cannot Be Forgotten; documentary, Czech Republic / Russia, 2010; D: Elena Vilenskaya, Nikolai Rybakov, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, S: Natalya Estemirova, Shakhman Akbulatov, Vladimir Kostyushev, Elena Smirnova

In 1999, genocidaire Vladimir Putin orders the Goreshist invasion and genocide of Chechnya in order to subjugate it and keep it a part of Kremlin's colony. On 5 February 2000, several Goreshist Russians entered Novy Aldy and perpetrated a massacre of 82 people, mostly Chechens, in the area. Nine years later, reporter Natalya Estemirova interviews the survivors who witnessed the war crime, thus documenting the events, including arson, rape and murder.

A brave and uncompromising documentary, "Novy Aldy - A Past that Cannot be Forgotten" is a sad, bitter and tragic chronicle of the Novy Aldy massacre during the Second Chechen War, offering a rare glimpse inside the lives of the survivors and witnesses of the said war crime, something that was a taboo topic and was forbidden to talk about in Goreshist Russia during that time. This documentary is a raw, yet gripping, emotional and electrifying affair: the witnesses talk how OMON soldiers shot civilians on the street, burned their homes, stole their money and raped, all of which is interwoven with clips of hand held camera that recorded the graphic images of the corpses, which is full of explicit content (one victim's brain is falling out from his skull, while the other's upper face was simply blown up). One Chechen woman gives one memorable quote during the film: "I think about those who did this... Were they not born as human beings? Don't they have brothers, sisters? Wives? Children? Don't they have the slightest bit of compassion? How do they live with it now? Don't they think about what they have done, not only with our lives, but with their own?" Another woman explains how she and many others were left traumatized after their family members and friends were murdered, summing it up with: "We don't live now anymore, we barely exist." More than anything else, this humanistic film is a testament and monument to life and work of reporter Natalya Estemirova, a wonderful and warm person and reporter, who was abducted and shot dead by the Goreshist shortly after this documentary was made.

Grade:+++

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer; science-fiction tragedy, South Korea / Czech Republic, 2013; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ah-sung Go, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner, John Hurt, Ed Harris

A man-made attempt at reducing global warming went out of control to the opposite extreme, causing a global ice age that killed off the entire life on Earth. The remaining couple of thousands of people travel in a long train run by engineer Wilford. Curtis is one of the many of the lower class passengers who starts a revolt inspired by his leader Gilliam, in order to topple Wilford and avenge all the people who died from appalling conditions. Together with door cracker Namgoon and his daughter Yona, Curtis and his gang walk towards the locomotive. Finally there, Wilford explains to Curtis that Gilliam was working with Wilford all along in order to have an excuse to kill many from the lower class and reduce the overpopulation. Wilford also offers Curtis to be his heir. However, he refuses and the causes the train to crash. Yona and a kid exit the train and spot a polar bear outside in the snow.

This ultra-pessimistic dystopian film offers a dark perspective on the limitations and determinism of physical-biological aspects that define human life, advancing into a Greek tragedy in which there is no solution or escape from this state, yet its spasmodic story and nihilistic elements are so crippling that they in the end become the movie's own flaw, whereas director Joon-ho Bong definitely lost some of his amazing, creative style from his early films that announced him as the new hope of South Korean cinema. "Snowpiercer" is basically an allegory on human history which, just like the train, just goes on in endless circles, unravelling about the never-ending class struggle in which the lower class is rebelling against the upper class, yet just like other frauds in history (the October Revolution, the Iranian Islamist Revolution...), it just ends with the revolutionaries becoming the new oppressor, the new upper class, contemplating about the need for humans to abandon these endless violences and bloody battles in order to finally grow up and resolve the issue with dialogue. The concept here is problematic in several aspects, though: for instance, why a train? If these are the only survivors of humanity, why not place them in a stationed place, such as a dome? Travelling across the world in a mobile train is dangerous, especially since nobody is fixing or mending the railroad. Why risk that even one wagon gets separated? Why can't the train simply stop when its not going anywhere, anyway? Other inconsistencies and illogical plot points bother as well: for instance, what does Curtis aim to accomplish, anyway? The story was simply not that well thought out to the end. It is an ambitious, yet bizarre and twisted film at the same time that is not for everyone's taste.

Grade:++

Friday, June 15, 2018

Non-Stop

Non-Stop; thriller, USA / France / UK / Canada, 2014; D: Jaume Collet-Serra, S: Liam Neeson, Corey Stoll, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Lupita Nyong'o

Bill Marks is a U.S. Air Marshal and ex-alcoholic who works non-stop to forget the death of his daughter. One night, while on board of a plane that is flying over the Atlantic Ocean from New York to London, he suddenly gets threatening text messages on his secure phone: the unknown messenger is threatening to kill one person every 20 minutes unless 150 million $ are transferred to a certain bank account. When one of the pilots gets poisoned and dies, Bill tries to use the help of a passenger, Jen; a muslim doctor; an NYPD officer, Austin and flight attendant Nancy to find out whom among the passengers is the criminal. Worse still, the FBI suspects Bill is the hijacker himself, since the bank account is on his name. Finally, the real perpetrator is revealed to be Bowen, whose father died during 9/11 so he wants to cause a bomb explosion on the plane to raise the awareness of the public. Luckily, Bill stops him and the plane lands safely in Reykjavik.

A surprisingly well done film, this is one of those 'minimalist thrillers' that intend to play out the entire story set out only on limited location, in this case a plane flying over the Atlantic Ocean, and manages to make it suspenseful and engage the viewers until the end. The director Jaume Collet-Serra uses the repertoire of Hitchcock's similar thrillers "Lifeboat", "The Lady Vanishes" and "The Rear Window" to craft "Non-Stop", resulting in an intriguing 'kammerspiel' that slowly builds its suspense, luckily without cheap tricks or sudden jump scares. One of the most effective sequences is, remarkably, one of the most quites ones at the same time: it is the almost 5-minute long sequence without any dialogues, in which Bill is walking across the plane and reading the disturbing text messages from an unknown villain that appear on the screen of the film, and which threaten to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless 150 million $ are transferred to an unknown account. Other details are good, as well (a flight attendant looking at every passenger on the screen, circling out several of them who are texting on their mobile phones while Bill is simultaneously exchanging text messages with the villain, in order to try to narrow their search for the bad guy to several suspects), whereas the story flows smoothly, though some of the supporting characters are underused (Juliane Moore's character, for instance). This is an interesting 'whodunnit' mystery, almost set up as one of Agatha Christie's stories on a plane, especially since many characters are presented among the passengers, yet the villain is revealed only at the sole end. Unfortunately, the finale of "Non-Stop" is terrible, since the villain's motivations and actions make no common sense, since a bad idea cannot be compensated by good acting, no matter how good the actors are, and thus such insane ending reduces the high impression of the film and takes its toll.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Time Bandits

Time Bandits; fantasy comedy, UK, 1981; D: Terry Gilliam, S: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross, David Warner, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Ralph Richardson, Sheila Fearn
Kevin (11) is a kid fascinated with history, but is neglected by his parents who are only interested in kitchen machines. One night, Kevin is shocked when six dwarfs enter his bedroom and bring him on to a journey across time: their leader, Randall, has a time map that shows small portals which lead to different eras in history. Randall and the dwarfs intend to travel through time and rob historic figures. On their journey, they encounter Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon and then head of to the era of legends, but get trapped by Evil who wants to use the map to re-write the entire world according to his own wishes. However, the Supreme Being shows up, stops Evil and obtains the map back. Kevin is brought back to his apartment, but his parents touch a piece of Evil's remains, and thus disintegrate.

Terry Gilliam's 3rd feature length film, which he co-wrote with his ex-Monty Python colleague Michael Palin, is a bizarre grotesque which, just like every subsequent film the director would make, was met with split reactions: some consider it a cult film and Gilliam's most accessible, fun flick, while others dismiss it as patchwork that slowly gets lost in the sea of autistic nonsense. Gilliam's hyper-surreal style and "distorted" set-designs truly are not for everyone, yet thanks to so many irresistible jokes, "Time Bandits" still lean towards the former impression. Since it traverses from one time period to another, the storyline is very episodic and thus each segment is "on its own": some episodes are pointless (the ogre; the giant wearing a ship as a hat) yet some rise to the occasion and deliver a few delicious gags, among them certainly the excellent John Cleese who delivered another comic creation in his career in the role of a perfectly clean and neatly dressed up Robin Hood, who really stands out as a sore thumb among all his dirty, poverty stricken followers, especially in the scene where he has an exchange with one of the dwarfs ("How long have you been a robber?" - "4'1").

Another great creation is that of David Warner who plays the Evil, the villain who wants to get the map and who has a few hilarious outbursts of rebellion against the Supreme Being who designed the flawed world—Evil's cynical monologue in front of his henchmen is gold ("Slugs! He created slugs! They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?... If I were creating the world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils! I would have started with lasers, eight o'clock, Day One!"). Some of the jokes appear so swiftly, in a visual way, that it is a delight—the dwarfs trying to steal a ring from a sleeping Napoleon, only to find out why he always kept his hand in his shirt (he had a prosthetic hand) or when one of the waiters on a ship moves away to reveal a sign on the wall that says "Titanic". These innocent jokes work far better than the black humor Gilliam is known for. Still, "Time Bandits" cannot shake away two impressions: the similar time-travel comedy "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" seems much fresher, whereas all the supporting characters are far more interesting than the main ones, since all six dwarfs act almost as extras throughout the entire film.

Grade:++